Are Your Candles Safe?

Candles are found in many households across the United states and all over the world! The candle industry estimates sales at $2 million annually, exclusive of candle accessories.  Picking up a candle at your local big box store is something you may take for granted, but it is not usually a very green or healthy decision.

Candles have been used for light for thousands of years. Beeswax was utilized to make candles in Egypt and Crete as early as 3000 BCE. Early candles were also made of natural fat, tallow and wax. In the 18th century, oil from the sperm whale, spermaceti, was used to make excellent candles and later that century certain plant oils were found to work well and were much cheaper than spermaceti.

In 1830, paraffin wax was identified and quickly became used to make candles. It was an inexpensive material and revolutionized the industry until the distillation of kerosene in 1854. Kerosene lamps replaced whale oil lamps and candles as a primary lighting source.

Today, candles are burned more for their ambiance and scent than for their light. Most candles today are made from paraffin. A study done at South Carolina State University this year compared the emissions from burning paraffin candles (petroleum-based) with those of soy (vegetable-based). They found that the paraffin candles emitted toxic chemicals including toluene and benzene whereas the soy candles did not.

While burning a paraffin candle every once in a while will most likely not cause lasting damage, it may aggravate conditions such as asthma, allergies or cause irritation in the respiratory tract. The more frequently these candles are burned the more likely they are to have problems.

In addition, although lead has not been used to make wicks in the US or Europe since the 1970’s, imported candles may contain leaded wicks and they are sold in America. While there is a federal ban on wicks containing lead not every candle manufacturer overseas has complied; the wording of the ban states that it is meant to discourage the manufacturing of lead wicks and allow U.S. Customs agents to stop shipments if found and to penalize violations.  Burning a candle with a lead wick can emit lead seven times greater than the amount recognized to cause elevated lead levels in children. To test for a leaded wick run a piece of white paper over the unburnt wick. If it leaves a grey pencil-like mark the wick contains lead.

Alternatives to candles typically sold in stores are soy and beeswax candles. I have actually found a brand of candles that manufactures using solar power. Sunbeam candles are reasonably priced as well. They are made in the New York state and have a short ingredient list: a blend of 100% pure beeswax, nonGMO soy wax, 100% pure essential oils and natural earth-friendly dyes.


Sunbeam’s The Queen Bee candle

As holiday times come upon us, candles can become the perfect gift for your best friend or a great gift for someone you’d like to know better. They are also a great way to demonstrate to others that living green doesn’t have to mean sacrificing and that alternatives to petroleum-based candles exist and are even superior to the mainstream candles.

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